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Federal regulators approve a major overhaul of America's electric grid

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Federal regulators have approved major changes to how U.S. power lines are planned, built and paid for. The overhaul comes as it has become harder and more expensive for America's electric utilities to deliver power to the country's homes and businesses. Willie Phillips chairs the agency that approved the new rules. That is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC.

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WILLIE PHILLIPS: Without significant action now, we won't be able to keep the lights on in the face of increasing demand, extreme weather and new technologies.

MARTIN: Washington Post reporter Evan Halper has been covering the story, and he's with us now to tell us more about it. Good morning, Evan.

EVAN HALPER: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So what's the problem here that the FERC is trying to address?

HALPER: Well, basically, the power grid's something that we don't think about very much. We assume that the power will be there, the lights will be on when we need them on, that everything will work. The problem right now is that the power grid's starting to fall apart. They need to build thousands of miles of new power line each year to keep up with economic growth and just keep everything working right, and it's not getting built. And FERC is becoming increasingly concerned, and that's why this - they passed these new rules.

MARTIN: And what will these new regulations require?

HALPER: They basically are going to require the patchwork of organizations and utilities in states that run the grid to come together and come up with 20-year plans that sort of require them to make a plan for investment and figure out who's going to pay what cost and work out disputes ahead of time and really get on a track of making the investments that need to be made to keep the lights on.

MARTIN: So this new rule passed 2-1 on partisan lines. The two Democratic commissioners supported it. Republican Commissioner Mark Christie voted no. He argued that increased costs would be passed along. Let's play a little bit.

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MARK CHRISTIE: Now, this rule could not come at a worse time for consumers. It is indisputable that power bills are rising faster than the overall inflation rate, which is itself very high.

MARTIN: So, Evan, explain a little bit about this. Like, what is the concern here?

HALPER: Well, basically, like every other policy issue in this country, energy is very polarized. And some states want to have a lot of renewable energy. They have laws in place. There are sort of climate laws that say we need to have this much clean energy by this year. We need the grid clean by this year. Other states are more interested in fossil fuels. And they want to keep the fossil fuel industry going, and they want to prop up, you know, oil and gas.

And what this commissioner is saying is basically, look, part of this is so that the states that want renewable energy can have the investments made in the grid to get that renewable energy across state lines and into their state, and that costs a lot of money. And another state may not want that. And what this commissioner is saying is that these new rules are going to force states that are not as excited about bringing more renewable energy online, for their rate payers are going to have to pay for that. That's the concern. You know, there's arguments against that, but that's really a lot of what he's talking about.

MARTIN: Is there, though, a general consensus, despite this sort of partisan difference over strategy, that there is a problem that needs to be fixed?

HALPER: Yes. There is consensus that the grid needs to be fixed. I mean, across partisan lines, there's talk about the need to build more of these transmission lines. There's just a lot of debate over how exactly it should be done. And that's why this problem has festered so long.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, how long could it take for these new systems to be in place? I mean, is the solution going to catch up with the problem in time, I guess is the question?

HALPER: Yeah. Well, that's the challenges. We are dealing with tremendous surges in energy demand with data centers, with the AI revolution, with the onshoring of all these clean tech facilities under President Biden's climate law. There needs to be just a lot of energy, and the concern is that there's not going to be enough. And so that's why, you know, they want to get these lines built, but it takes a long time. It takes years to build the lines. And so that's why the urgency is so great right now.

MARTIN: That is Evan Halper with the Washington Post, reporting on major changes to America's electric grid approved just yesterday by federal regulars (ph). Evan, thank you so much.

HALPER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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